Mysticism is a Riot

Mysticism is alive.

It is alive in the aura of death that now more visibly hangs over us like an irreversible fog. And, for me, in this white body of mine, mysticism has come alive in the protesting, rioting, and looting in the streets of cities across America. This simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the awakening to countless injustices and oppressions, has revealed our bodies’ collective navigation of the inherence of death and the inescapability of our common humanity.

Amid this thickening fog of death, oppressions, and injustices in our lives and our consciousness––transcendence is required so that clarity might prevail. But the transcendence of going beyond what is is not simple nor easy––transcendence is struggle itself. It is the day-to-day inner and outer work alongside our fellow humans in pursuit of truth, justice, love, and freedom.

Mysticism is a riot.

In Albert Cleage Jr.’s seminal work, The Black Messiah, he describes looting as a “mystical kind of thing,” saying “People loot stuff they don’t event want… but there was a sense of defiance in the very nature of the retaliation.” Meanwhile, many white people are so desperately clinging to the disruption of looting that we fail to see the mystical nature it contains. We fail to recognize that disruption and revolt is not only mystical in the way it interrupts an unjust status quo (amid the additional injustices found in capitalism), but also in the way it transcends the reality of things. Cleage writes, “Perhaps those who loot and burn don’t have any real revolutionary philosophy, but they do know one simple thing: tear up the white man’s property, and you hurt him where it hurts the most.” In a culture built upon capitalism and white supremacy, looting quickly becomes a mystical kind of thing.

The mysticism of a riot is found in its people’s presence. A people, more specifically, who have transcended above the fog in their collective struggle and clearly recognize the injustices at hand. And, the mysticism of a riot, is in the riot itself––the choice to go beyond behavioral expectations and societal norms.

Mysticism breeds revolution. 

Today, mysticism demands a riot, requires a revolution, and upends our everyday lives. Mysticism is the beginning of a new way, a reinvention of unjust institutions. “So many institutions of our society need reinventing,” says Activist Grace Lee Boggs, “The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”

Mysticism is a protest.   

Far too many of us, including myself at one time, associated mysticism with a hunkered down way of being––silently immersed in daily contemplation. But true mysticism, true union and absorption with the infinite also requires the self-surrender of speaking up for the injustices which are so clearly against a loving Deity. True mysticism is not only an individual encounter but also a collective movement. 

The Desert Mothers and Fathers were Black and Brown mystics who led a collective protest by moving to the desert in order to leave the corruption of The Roman Empire and its control of Christianity. These mystics transcended what was for what could be, by choosing to go communally live in the desert to be absorbed in solitude, prayer, community, and remove themselves from the oppression of empire.

Some people find it is easier to see mystical existence in desert living, but it was not lost on these mystics that the great protest of life could be led wherever one finds themselves:  Amma Syncletica once wrote, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”

Mysticism is on the streets.

So, one must wonder, “What does it mean,” Barbara A. Holmes writes, “to be a public mystic, a leader whose interiority and communal reference points must intersect?” In Holmes’ book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, she writes of a few public mystics like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Sue Bailey, Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. Holmes writes that these public mystics are found in the seemingly mundane and “transcendent in the midst of pragmatic justice-seeking acts.”

Of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Holmes writes, “Hamer was cloistered in an activist movement, finding her focus, restoration, and life in God in the mist of the beloved community already here and yet coming.”

For today’s contemplative, looking only to the Desert Mothers and Fathers for examples of contemplation and mysticism is to dismiss half of what these things are. We must not fail to also look to yesterday and today’s Black and Brown contemplatives who have “turned the ‘inward journey’ into a communal experience.”

Mysticism is now.

If mysticism as total absorption in God and is not a movement towards a more loving and just world, then there is no such thing as a loving and just God and/or no such thing as mysticism––for to be absorbed requires one to become of that which one is absorbed into.

Mysticism is alive. Mysticism is a protest. Mysticism is a riot. Mysticism is resistance. Mysticism breeds revolution. Mysticism is on the streets. Mysticism is now.

 

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Redwoods, Give Me A Word.

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Photo by Cassidy Hall

The towering redwoods of northern California have always mystified me. I’m constantly swept away with awe and wonder, as if I’ve rewinded my life back into childhood. With my gaze upward and my mouth wide open, I oooo and ahhhh at the way the light shines through the endless towers, the great elevated heights of trees, and squint my way through each crevice in hopes of seeing the array of creatures who call these woods home.

While on a stroll by a creek bed, I was so at ease with my surroundings that an overwhelming sense of equilibrium and a peace began to hypnotize me. I was startled back into the moment by noticing I was holding my own hand, as if the nature I was surrounded by intertwined with each of my fingers. Glancing down at my hands, I smiled in wonder, and continued my gentle clasp. I could breathe, feeling as if I inherently belonged to the moment — I to the trees, the trees to me, and the moment to us.

I’ve often wondered why these ancient trees bring me so much contentment and comfort. To me, this isn’t just about being in nature and reveling in her beauty. This is about growing trees that can attain the height of 378 feet with bark as thick as 12 inches; this is about a living thing whose arms (branches) can be up to 5 feet in diameter; this is about something that can live through 2,000 years (3,000 years for their inland relations, the giant sequoias)* worth of storms and remains standing; this is about trees who see, house, and intimately know generations of squirrels, birds, butterflies, bears; this is about trees who lived through the births and deaths of mothers and fathers of religious movements; this is about wisdom beyond human understanding, ancient wisdom.

This ancient wisdom is beyond any insight of words written on a page or stories passed from age to age. Though the desert fathers and mothers of 4th century Christianity often offered words, phrases, and a variety of insight to passing pilgrims asking for a word; these trees speak a different language, a universal language to thousands of generations of meandering pilgrims. This is the wisdom whose words speak to our deep mind in the silences and spaces between. This is the wisdom of the discourse we run father away from in our busy every day lives. Though we muffle it with destruction, it remains below our feet; though we forget it with distraction, it exists in the silences of our days. This is the wisdom whose exclusive interest is to be.

We live in a society that values the decided mind, yet the decided mind often doesn’t have room to be, because the decided mind is closed, shut, and unopened to the fluidity of being. The tree moves and dances with the winds, but remains a tree. The tree encounters wounds in the storms, but doesn’t cease to stand and be. This ancient wisdom points me back to wonder precisely so I can also be. So that I let the unfoldings of my own life open out, so that I may accept myself with the child-like wisdom of innocence, holding my own hand. From here I may evolve in the spaces where I lack understanding, so I may at every moment unfurl my tired clasping hands. And in doing so, I get to partake in this ancient wisdom, this deep beholding, and let it hold my hand.

To be, just as I already am.

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Photo by Cassidy Hall

* http://www.visitsequoia.com/redwoods-and-sequoias.aspx

This essay can be found in the book, Notes on Silence, by Cassidy Halland Patrick Shen. available on Amazon or the Transcendental Media store.